Caring through Mindfulness

Caring is integral to mindfulness – we pay attention in the moment with care and curiosity.  We can learn to care for others through  loving kindness meditation as well as learn to care for ourselves through self-compassion.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the subject of mindfulness and care and stresses the need to care for ourselves as well as for others.  She suggests that people often discount or devalue their inner experience or feelings and yet be consumed by care for others.

Diana asks an important question to enable us to be mindful about caring – her question is, “What or whom do you care for”.  For whom do you express care and concern – a son or daughter, partner, friend or people suffering adversity.  How wide is your circle of care and how deeply do you care?

These are challenging questions because they raise the issue of how often we express care and concern for others – how generous and expansive is our caring?  How many people do we let into our lives through concern, considerateness and thoughtfulness?

Caring through mindfulness

Caring can be the focus of our meditation once we have become grounded through placing our feet on the ground, adopting a restful position with our body (and especially our hands) and taking a few deep breaths.

Our concern and care of our body can then be expressed through a progressive body scan and relaxation of points of tension.  Focus on our breathing will assist us to pay attention to the theme of caring as mindful breathing steadies our mind and enables us to concentrate.

We can focus on an individual and express care for that person and tap into what it feels like to express this care – is the feeling one of warmth, love or genuine concern for their welfare?  How is this care manifested in our body?

We can also express appreciation for the fact that we do care for others and take the time to express that care in words and actions.  We can acknowledge that it is a gift to be able to be sensitive to others and their needs – to move beyond self-absorption to concern for others.

As we grow in mindfulness through caring meditation our circle of care and concern widens and deepens, and we are able to more readily extend care to ourselves.

 

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Handling Fear with Mindfulness

In an earlier post, I described a meditation process for handling fear that Tara Brach described by the acronym, R.A.I.N. – standing for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  In the current discussion, I would like to introduce a mindfulness meditation for addressing fear that is discussed and facilitated by Diana Winston.

In the meditation podcast, Working with Fear, Diana describes a process involving a number of steps that help to soften our bodily response to fear.  Diana explains that fear is a natural response to a perception of threat either imagined or real.  This deeply-embed biological response to perceived threat has accounted for the survival of the human race.

Fear is endemic, often unfounded and poorly managed

Increasingly, we are exposed to situations and pressures that tend to induce fear and anxiety, even when the fears are baseless.  We live in a time when anxiety is endemic – we are surrounded by people (including famous actors, singers, writers and sports people) who suffer from all-consuming fear and anxiety.   Much of this fear and anxiety is unfounded.  Diana points out that a recent study by Cornell University found that “85% of the things that we worry about never come true.”

One of the problems with our fear response is that we typically try to resolve the fear by thinking – by trying to think our way out of fear with the net result that this creates a vicious circle.  We tend to indulge our worst scenario thinking, “What will happen if…”, and these thoughts can intensify our fear and anxiety.  Unresolved fear can ultimately lead to a condition that the Mayo Clinic describes as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Mindfulness provides an effective alternative to trying to think our way through fear and Diana proposes a meditation process that incorporates the following steps:

  • Being grounded through our posture
  • Taking a number of deep breaths
  • Focusing on our breathing and where it is experienced in our body – a process of mindful breathing (for 5-10 minutes) to still the mind
  • Undertaking an overall body scan to  identify and release areas of felt tightness and tension (a quick scan/release process that takes in the whole body)
  • Bringing our fear or worry into focus by thinking about a particular source of fear (preferably, one that is not disabling or too intense)
  • Undertaking a body scan to identify where the fear is manifesting in a particular part of our body – e.g., our arms, legs, back, neck and/or stomach.
  • Softening the muscles in the identified area that is manifesting the fear
  • Repeating the process of checking and releasing the bodily manifestation of our anxiety ( 3 times overall)
  • Coming back to our breath for a brief time and then returning to full awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations focused on our fear response, we can progressively reduce the fear and replace a sense of anxiety with a calmness and creative approach to resolving our fears.

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Focusing Inward to See Clearly

So much of our daily lives is taken up with focusing on things that are external to ourselves – social media, meetings, conversations about recent events, driving our car or trying to catch a train or bus to work.  Our thoughts are often racing as we plan, evaluate and critique.  As a consequence, we spend so little time focusing inward and getting in touch with our inner reality.

While our focus is external most of the time, it means that we are susceptible to being pushed and pulled by external forces – whether they relate to the internet, invasive advertising, loud conversations or the fast pace of life.

Focusing inward to see clearly

Diana Winston reminds us in her meditation podcast,  Focusing inward and seeing clearly, that mindfulness meditation can bring insight, clarity, creative solutions to problems and a new level of awareness of both our inner and outer reality.

The starting point is to become grounded by placing our feet firmly on the floor and closing our eyes (or looking downward).   This initial step is designed to move our attention from external things to our internal world.

We need a focus to maintain our attention to our inner world.  This focus could be our breathing or sounds.   However, the latter could distract us from our inner work because we are always interpreting sounds, comparing them or recalling memories that are stimulated by particular sounds.

A couple of deep breaths at the outset of our meditation can help us to let go and get focused on our breathing and where in our body it is most noticeable.  A progressive body scan can also help to fix our attention within.  We can feel the sensation of our feet touching the floor, the firmness of our back against our chair and the warmth/tingling in our hands as we progress our meditation.

We might also notice areas of tension in our body and progressively release this tension as we bring our attention to the relevant parts of our body.  This, in turn, can make us open to our feelings which we have been holding back – we could be anxious, frustrated, angry or feeling hurt.  By naming our feelings, we can gain control over them and sustain our attention on our inner focus.

Once we have stabilised our attention on our inner world, we can address several questions designed to deepen our personal insight and increase our clarity, for example:

As we grow in mindfulness through insight meditation, we can unearth new understandings and different perspectives on issues as well as creative solutions, we can really open up the spaciousness of our minds and achieve more of what we are capable of.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Being Grounded

So often we can be off-balance, caught up in concerns about the future or worry about the past.  Alternatively, our minds can be racing from one thought to another.

If we lack awareness in the present moment, we will miss opportunities, make poor decisions, create work and  stress for ourselves and find that our productivity, either at work or at home, suffers.

If we are grounded, small annoyances and setbacks do not disturb our equanimity and we can manage larger challenges more effectively because we are able to choose an appropriate response, rather than be caught up in the whirlwind of our thoughts and activities.

Ways to develop groundedness

Being gounded is important and underpins mindful living.  We need to stop our frenetic activity and  take time to get connected with nature or tuned into our body.  Another form of groundedness is to engage in mindful walking where we get in touch with the ground, or the floor if we are walking inside our house.

We can tune into our body through mindful breathing, a body scan or other form of somatic meditation.  Breathing is so fundamental to living that most mindfulness experts praise the benefits of mindful breathing – it has a calming effect, can be undertaken any where and is  a good way to begin most meditations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Another form of meditation that enables you to become really grounded focuses on the energy that surrounds us – in the air, in nature, with people and animals.      Through this approach,  you are able to get in touch with the energy of the universe and experience the connectedness this entails.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular practice of different forms of meditation, we can become grounded more easily when we are in a stressful situation, or exposed to a negative trigger, or are becoming nervous when we have to perform.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Standing and Walking Meditation

Standing and walking meditations have the common aims of helping us to get in touch with our bodies, to become grounded, to slow down the pace of our lives and to clear our minds of constant chatter.  I have previously written about mindful walking and here I want to talk about using standing and walking meditations together.

Standing meditation  

The idea in the combination approach is to use standing meditations as bookends for a walking meditation – that is, as you complete each forward and return leg of a walking meditation, you stop and complete a standing meditation.

The standing meditation begins with being aware of the feel of your feet on the floor, then being conscious of the muscles that support your upright position.  You can hold your arms in any number of ways – with your hands loosely in front of you, your arms hanging loosely beside your body or joined loosely behind your back.  I find that with my arms hanging loosely beside my body, I almost immediately find the tension draining out of my arms and hands.

The standing meditation can involve mindful breathing, body scan, inner awareness or open awareness – taking in sounds, sights, and smells.  The key aim is to be present in the moment, in touch with your inner and outer reality.

Walking meditation

There are many forms of walking meditation and what I will cover here is an approach that is used in combination with standing meditations.  Walking meditations are valuable because we spend so much of our day moving around, typically racing from one place to another in pursuit of our time-poor way of life.  All the time as we move, our minds are also racing – we become caught up in thinking about what needs to be done, planning our actions or feeling concerned about possible undesirable outcomes.

Walking meditation enables us to get in touch with our body and at the same time to notice what thoughts are continuously preoccupying us.  I found for instance that the thoughts that continually invaded my consciousness as I was doing a walking meditation all related to some form of planning or other related thinking activity – planning for the things that needed to be done after the meditation or the following days.

Tara Brach suggests that if you walk indoors, it is useful to have a walking space that is 15 to 30 steps in length.  This means, in effect, that there is no end goal in terms of where you are trying to get to physically – which counters our daily habit of being goal directed in every movement.  Instead, with the walking meditation we are very present to each step, each movement forward – not pursuing an end goal.  It also provides the opportunity to undertake a standing meditation at each end of the walking space to add increased stillness and serenity to our mindful walking practice.

The idea is to start to walk a little bit more slowly than you usually walk and, at the same time, to pay attention to the sensations in parts of your body, e.g. your feet, lower legs, arms, chest and thighs.  In contrast to your standing or sitting meditation, your breathing will tend to be in the background and your bodily sensations in the foreground.

The basic idea is to become conscious of lifting your feet, stepping out and landing your feet in front of you.  The standing meditation at the end of each leg of the walking space involves pausing and stillness and thus deepening your grounding and your awareness of the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining standing and walking meditations, we become more grounded, more conscious of our bodily sensations and tensions, more in tune with our present reality and better able to be still and silent and to open ourselves to the richness within and without.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Finding Yourself Through Mindfulness – Start Small, Start Now

The music world and fans are mourning the death of Avicii, Swedish DJ, who died recently in Oman at the age of 28.   Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, suffered ill-health for many years as a result of alcoholism and retired from touring in 2016 because life on the road did not agree with his introverted nature.  He found he was so nervous before a performance that he would turn to alcohol to overcome his nervousness and to give him encouragement and confidence to perform.   During his short life as a music producer, he inspired millions of other producers to explore their potentiality.

Two of his songs had a profound impact on me, not only because of their musicality, but also because of their lyrics.  These songs are Wake Me Up When it’s Over and What Are You Waiting For?  There are many interpretations of the lyrics of these songs, but recently I have come to interpret them in terms of mindfulness.

Wake me up when it’s all over

The lyrics of this song and the music are haunting and leave an indelible impact through the words, “All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost.”

So many of us have lost our way as the pressures of modern living close in on us.  Mindfulness is very much about “finding myself” – getting to know your real self and not the narrative you carry in your head.   So many people do not know that they are lost – that they have lost meaning in life because they are caught up with the unrelenting flow of expectations, their own and that of others.

Kabat-Zinn often quotes the words of James Joyce, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.  Because our lives are taken up with thinking instead of being, we spend so much of our time in our heads, disconnected from our bodies and the world around us.

Kabat-Zinn urges us to “reinhabit our bodies” that we have become disconnected from.  His book, Coming to Our Senses, stresses the need, both literally and metaphorically, to reconnect with our senses and the world around us by growing in awareness through mindfulness meditation.  He reminds us that we have only one life to live and we are living it now in the present moment.

Somatic meditation – incorporating practices such as mindful walking, Tai Chi and body scan – enable us to become grounded in what Kabat-Zinn calls our “embodied presence“.   Different forms of somatic meditation, for example, are used to help trauma victims to find themselves after the devastating and disorientating impact of the trauma experience.

What are you waiting for?

There is never a perfect time to start to grow in mindfulness and to reconnect with yourself.  Avicii asks us the penetrating question in his song –  You’re only livin’ once so tell me?  What are you, what are you waiting for?

Seth Godin, marketing guru and renowned, innovative author, urges us to “start small, start now” with any new endeavour.  There are many simple starting points to develop mindfulness that can lead to self-awareness and self-management and the associated benefits of calm, clarity and creativity.

Chade-Meng Tan, co-creator of Search Inside Yourself (Google’s course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence), urges us to “do less than we can imagine” but do it daily and consistently, even if it is  only “one mindful breath a day”.

In the hectic pace of modern living and the constant intrusion of disruptive marketing, we are beginning to suffer from the inability to focus and bring our attention to the present moment.  Neuroscience confirms the very lasting benefits for mental and physical health of growing in awareness of the present moment through mindfulness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Naming Your Feelings to Tame Them

In the previous post, I discussed recognising our feelings.  This involved firstly, acknowledging that a very wide range of emotions are the essence of being human, and secondly, using mindfulness to get in touch with the feelings we are experiencing.  In this post, we take this process one step further by naming our individual feelings

Why name your feelings?

In his book, Mindsight, Dan Siegel argues that we “Name It to Tame It” – in other words, by naming our feelings we are better able to control them or, at least, lessen their impact as Professor Matthew D. Lieberman found in his research.

Dan argues that to say “I feel angry” is a very different statement, both in content and impact, than the words “I am angry”.  The latter tends to define us as angry person, whereas the former helps us to recognise that we are not our feelings – we are a lot more than what we feel.  Feelings come and go in nature and intensity – our essence remains.  Naming our feelings in a gentle, non-judgmental way affirms our self-worth and opens up the opportunity to master our feelings.

Naming your feelings gives you a sense of power over them and a freedom from servitude to them.  It also creates new perspectives and a spaciousness for the release of creativity.  As Dr. Ornish noted:

When you take time for your feelings, you become less stressed and you can think more clearly and creatively, making it easier to find constructive solutions.

The challenge of naming your feelings

Often we suppress our feeling or deny them because we are embarrassed to admit that we have those feelings.  Another issue is that often they come in a bundled format – a number of intertwined feelings linked together by a stimulus event or thought.  So, it is often hard to untangle them to identify and name each one.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of his encounter with a young man who said that he was depressed.  So Jack sat with him and entered into a conversation to help him to find out what was happening emotionally for him.  The young man started talking and first identified being worried, then angry, then discouraged, then sad – and finally, he was able to see a way ahead rather than being held captive by this undigested mix of feelings.  I had a similar experience recently, where I passed through a progressive range of feelings – unease, anxiety, fear, anger, empathy – only to identify creative solutions to the issue that was disturbing me.

Thus we need to take time to get in touch with our feelings and to name them.  Sometimes, we can be lost for words to name our feelings.  However, there are a wide range of resources such as the list of feelings (pleasant and unpleasant/difficult).  These feeling words open up the opportunity to get in touch with, and be more descriptive of, what we are actually feeling (rather than using a vague catch-all descriptor which does not strengthen our sense of emotional control).

Jack Kornfield suggests a meditation to help here as well.  It involves the typical process of mindful breathing followed by body scan and then identifying any feeling that you are experiencing through your body – it could be tightness brought on by anxiety, a tingling sensation from nervousness or a speeding-up of your breath resulting from a felt fear.  Acknowledging this feeling and naming it, without judgement, is the first step to dealing with it and gaining self-mastery.  After naming one feeling, you can move onto another feeling during this meditation process.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation on our feelings we gain the insight to name and tame those feelings and open up new perspectives on, and solutions for, existing problems.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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